F1 computing kit: 1,500 cores, Linux and SSDs

Want to see a big server farm in action? How about 1,500 cores in a room full of blade servers, connected to 96TB of iSCSI storage? That’s what confronted me on a recent visit to Team Lotus, the Formula 1 team, in Norfolk.

F1 computing kit: 1,500 cores, Linux and SSDs

I was invited there by Dell, which was keen to show off the installation. Dell has provided the entire IT infrastructure for the team, both in its factory and at various race circuits around the world. A modern F1 car contains approximately 150 digital sensors, collecting gigabytes of data in real-time. This data is transmitted by radio to a pit-side datacenter and from there back to the HQ in Norfolk.

Currently, the farm is running on Linux, because that OS is apparently what best supports the number-crunching engine for the CFD software

It was fascinating to see the way an extreme technology company such as Team Lotus could go to one vendor, in this case Dell, to buy its entire IT infrastructure – it isn’t just servers, it’s storage and networking too, plus all the laptops and mobile datacenters that travel around the world during the racing season.

The advantage for Team Lotus is quite clear – one point of contact, one company to shout at when something goes wrong. It has an enterprise-wide contract for support, which allows for on-site support anywhere in the world – clearly a necessity when you’re trucking an F1 team from circuit to circuit.

The potential downside is that you have to hope your single supplier can provide the best solution for each technical challenge, and that you’re not restricted to buying only what it can offer you this month. However, a big vendor such as Dell, IBM or HP has a portfolio that will cover most people’s needs if they have a deep enough chequebook to support the purchase orders.

For a competitive F1 team, fractions of a second per lap can spell the difference between being at the front of the grid or the back, so the digital monitoring equipment gets pushed to its outermost limits to keep the competitive edge. Dell supplied Lotus with its huge computation farm to enable enormous computational fluid dynamics (CFD) models to be run in reasonable time, which is done in parallel with processing the results from monitoring real model cars inside a wind tunnel.

Keeping that server farm running efficiently isn’t an easy task, and there are rules in F1 regarding how much computational work you’re permitted to do during one year. Currently, the farm is running on Linux, because that OS is apparently what best supports the number-crunching engine for the computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software. There are plans to look at Windows Server, but its benefits would have to be proved and delivered beyond doubt.

One fact I found fascinating: all the laptops in the pit are now running on SSDs, because of the increased risk of disk failure caused by the high vibration levels experienced near a running F1 car.

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